The Trump administration has triggered visa sanctions against four countries that have refused to take back citizens the U.S. is trying to deport — tapping a little-used but very effective tool for forcing compliance.
Officials at Homeland Security and the State Department confirmed the move Tuesday but declined to name the four countries.
Sources who tracked the deliberations in recent weeks, however, said the countries were Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
Triggering the sanctions fulfills a campaign promise by President Trump, who had chided the Obama administration for not doing more to force countries to take back their deportees.
Once in office, Mr. Trump had ordered his government to use a provision in law that allows him to slap sanctions on countries that thwart deportation efforts. Homeland Security triggered the law by sending letters to the State Department this week, and now State must halt issuance of visas to some or all of those countries’ citizens.
“We can confirm the Department of State has received notification from the Department of Homeland Security regarding four countries that have refused to accept or unreasonably delayed the return of its nationals,” a department official told The Washington Times.
“When we receive such notification, the Department of State works to implement a visa suspension as expeditiously as possible in the manner the secretary determines most appropriate under the circumstances to achieve the desired goal.”
Officials at the embassies of the four targeted countries couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday night.
All of them have been on the list of recalcitrant countries for years — with Eritrea having been a problem country as far back as 2004, according to an inspector general’s report.
Before now visa sanctions had only been triggered twice — once at the beginning of the Bush administration and once at the tail end of the Obama administration. The Trump government’s moves doubled that total in one swoop.
“Finally we have an administration that is doing what it should be doing,” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, which had pushed both previous presidents to flex this tool. “This should be routine practice. As soon as a country refuses to take back its criminal nationals, there should be visa sanctions immediately.”
Countries’ refusal to take back their deportees has led to tragic results. In one high-profile case, Haiti refused repatriation of Jean Jacques, a man who’d served time for attempted murder. Unable to hold him beyond 180 days, thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, federal agents released Jacques — and within months he murdered a young woman in Connecticut in a drug dispute with her boyfriend.
Another illegal immigrant, Thong Vang, was released from prison in 2014 after serving time for rape convictions, but his home country of Laos refused to take him back. He ended up back in a California prison last year and shot two guards, police said.
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump had vowed a crackdown, complaining about “at least 23 countries that refuse to take their people back after they’ve been ordered to leave the United States, including large numbers of violent criminals.”
He blamed Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, for being part of the problem, saying she “allowed thousands of criminal aliens to be released because their home countries wouldn’t take them back.” He said she should have pressured foreign governments.
Previous administrations had been reluctant to trigger the sanctions, preferring less serious moves such as ambassadorial meetings and scolding letters. Officials said visa sanctions were a blunt tool.
But cases like the Jacques killing prompted bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers demanded not only visa sanctions but said they would consider withholding U.S. foreign aid from countries that refused to cooperate.
Now in office, Mr. Trump has already made substantial progress in trimming the size of the problem.
Some 20 countries were deemed recalcitrant at the end of last year, but by May the number was cut to 12.
Major problem countries such as Somalia and Iraq were been dropped — with the Iraqi government promising to take back deportees as a condition of avoiding Mr. Trump’s travel ban executive order.
Still on the naughty list as of May were Cuba and China — the two biggest offenders over the years. As of last year, the U.S. was trying to deport some 35,000 Cubans with criminal records. The number of criminal migrants awaiting deportation to China stood at 1,900.
Cuba has promised better cooperation moving forward under the diplomatic outreach launched by President Obama.
Burma, Hong Kong, Laos, Morocco, South Sudan, Vietnam and Iran were also on the list as of May. It was unclear why they weren’t subjected to similar letters this week.
Under Section 243(d) of the immigration code, once the Homeland Security secretary determines a country is recalcitrant, he is to notify the State Department, which, according to the law, “shall” issue sanctions. How far the punishment goes is up to State.
Both previous times the law was triggered — against Guyana in 2001 and Gambia last year — the State Department only stopped issuing visas to government officials and their families.
Still, that was enough. In the case of Guyana, that government almost immediately agreed to take back 112 of 113 backlogged deportees. Officials for Gambia also said they took steps last year after being hit with sanctions.